The world's cities are responsible for 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, but are also likely to produce many of the solutions to climate change. Many cities have far more ambitious environmental aims than do national governments. But how are they to be met?by Matthew Lockwood / December 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2007 issue of Prospect Magazine
Cities lie at the heart of our climate change dilemmas. Half the world’s population now lives in cities, a figure set to rise to 80 per cent by 2050. Big concentrations of people make vulnerable targets for climate disasters. These will be not only sudden and dramatic (Hurricane Katrina) but also slow and insidious (Shanghai struggling with salination from rising sea levels).
If towns and cities are on the front line of climate change impacts, they are also central to it causes. Cities, after all, are the ultimate “final consumer” of energy, using an estimated 75 per cent of the world total, in transport, construction, industry, and in the heating, cooling and lighting of buildings. Responsible for 80 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions, urban centres also have enormous ecological “footprints,” as they suck up food and resources from their surrounding regions.
Yet in theory, cities should produce many of the solutions we need, both in adapting to the changes and in cutting further emissions. As Nicky Gavron, deputy mayor of London, says, cities have both the motivation and the opportunity to tackle climate change. Learning happens fastest in cities, and city dwellers are more likely to be open to political messages about climate change. Moreover, in the developed world, city dwellers are lower per capita users of energy and bigger users of public transport than suburb or country dwellers.
London, along with Toronto, has set up the C40, a network of 40 global cities which aims to accelerate the climate change learning process between cities. Cities have a good record of learning from each other, larger cities from smaller ones in particular. Congestion charging was tried in places like Trondheim in Norway and Singapore before London adopted it. Pioneers like Portland in Oregon have developed many ideas taken up by others.
Many city governments have ambitions that far outpace the lumbering international negotiations for a successor to the Kyoto protocol. Thus while the US government has yet to embrace the concept of binding greenhouse gas emission reductions targets, the city of New York has adopted a goal of cutting emissions by 20 per cent by 2010, from a 1995 baseline. Melbourne in Australia (another Kyoto refusenik at the federal level) wants to go for zero net emissions by 2020.